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Emma Aston

Section Three : Mixanthropy and representation


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1. Monstrous gods?

1By depicting certain of their deities as mixanthropes, the Greeks were selecting a form that was overwhelmingly associated with the monstrous adversaries of myth. Occasionally, gods were also monsters, as in the case of the Sirens. The Greeks almost never remarked on this convergence. But this book has shown, among other things, that it is consistently significant.

2Monsters are foes, to be defeated. They are destructive, and work against the lives and the achievements of man. They belong either to the remote past of myth, or to distant lands, or, since space and time work hand in hand in the Greek imagination, to both. As symbols, they are evergreen; as beings, they are typically absent.

3So many of these characteristics have been shown to dominate the personalities of mixanthropic gods also. Destructive potential such as they exhibit is a feature of all gods, as of all monsters; but the theme of absence occurs with special strength among the mixanthropes. As with monsters, this can be expressed spatially, through themes of movement and departure, or temporally, through the relegation of mixanthropic gods to a distant and obsolete time. So far it would seem that the Greeks simply had certain monsters who were also gods, certain gods who also happened to be monsters, so much similarity is there in the respective personalities of the two groups.

4However, this is very far from true. It has also been shown that mixanthropic gods are illuminated by their difference from the pattern of the defeated monster. Whereas the monster’s expulsion is wholeheartedly desired and applauded, and benefits mankind, the absence of mixanthropic deities is typically couched in terms of anxiety and regret. Moreover, whereas absence is something which monsters always have inflicted on them, mixanthropic deities are not always so passive; they can sometimes, as in the cases of Demeter Melaina and Thetis, use absence as a weapon, punitively withdrawing their powers.

5So mixanthropy is used to depict deities who are surrounded by a condition of tense ambivalence. Moreover, it has been shown that there is more to mixanthropy than its monstrosity. There is also its connection with metamorphosis, a connection far more in evidence in the case of cult-receiving than non-cult-receiving mixanthropes. The mixanthropy of deities, unlike that of monsters, is strongly connected with their ability to transform, to slide between states, to abnegate permanence.

2. Why have mixanthropic deities?

6So it is clear that mixanthropy offered a powerful tool for expression which could capture and heighten the perilous relationship between humanity and divinity. But the picture created is full of discomfort, and the deities described in this book can come to seem almost intolerable: dangerous and unreliable beyond the usual run of the divine. In other words, they seem to raise and to embody all that is problematic about gods. This is not to say that their characteristics are wholly negative – far from it. We have seen mixanthropes offering prophecy, divine kourotrophy, civic identity, and numerous other advantageous things which a deity in general may be thought to provide. Here, however, it will be suggested that by its very nature as a composite being, a mixanthrope may also offer something very particular not obtainable from purely anthropomorphic gods. It is also the case that mixanthropic gods do not simply pose problems – they also provide solutions.

7By itself, the mixanthrope’s animal part confers some positive associations. Connected with the animal element are the mixanthrope’s special (often mantic) knowledge, its frequent magical musicality, its participation in the benefits of the Dionysiac sphere. Pan especially – lively, humorous, fertility-bringing – embodies the good as well as the frightening sides of animality. The Sirens’ bird-parts clearly contribute an association with melodious song. But recognising this brings us no closer to what makes a mixanthrope, a composite of animal and human, particularly valuable as symbol and god.

8In addition to containing animal traits, many mixanthropes display a surprising capacity for humanity. Those who herd and/or hunt animals do so from a standpoint which is, of course, human. They themselves, as half-animal and half-human, encapsulate the key aspects of man’s day-to-day interaction with the animal world, and they do so from man’s own perspective. Pan clearly shows the humorous potential of this possibility: one moment he is butting, or mating with, goats, in goat mode; the next he is herding, managing and ordering the same animals. He can be either quasi-human or quasi-animal, depending on the whim of the artist; but he is never wholly one or the other.

9Some mixanthropes, however, achieve what might be termed super-humanity, which is striking and even surprising given that their humanity appears anatomically compromised. Rather than being less than human, as one might expect, they are, on one level, more human than humans. The outstanding examples of this are Cheiron and Kekrops. The former in myth is an agent of paideia, of education. He initiates young heroes into aristocratic adulthood, leading them away from the finite savagery that is childhood. Kekrops is a founder of human institutions, most notably monarchy – he is the first king of Athens – and monogamous marriage, customs which Greeks considered crucial in distinguishing man from beast, especially marriage. Thus both Cheiron and Kekrops are directly responsible for two major pillars of human – as opposed to animal – life. This is a startling rôle for a mixanthrope, half-animal, to hold.

  • 1 Though paideia is one of the hallmarks of human civilisation, von Blanckenhagen is surely right to (...)

10The ways in which they fulfil it are also illuminating. They themselves present antitheses to the human institutions for which they stand. Cheiron may be wise, but he is also firmly outside the human society into which he leads young heroes. While they are with him, they experience a way of life at least partially in contrast with that for which they are being prepared: they live in a cave beyond the normal zone of habitation of men; they eat the marrow of bears and similar unorthodox foodstuffs. They share the centaur’s modus vivendi for a brief, transitional period, before leaving it forever.1 This has all the hallmarks of a rite of passage, essential to individual progress.

11Kekrops invents monogamous marriage and therefore the birth of legitimate children; and yet his own birth is quite different. He has a single, elemental and primordial parent, the Earth. The genesis of Kekrops himself is at complete variance with the human institutions which he creates and represents. Mixanthropic deities like Cheiron and Kekrops stand at junctions, chiefly temporal. They themselves embody a primitive state, whether it is the childhood of an individual or the early stages of an entire human society. They embody the old, but they usher in the new. They themselves cannot fully occupy the new order which they facilitate; they are rooted in the ancien régime. But they make transition possible; and their dual nature must be a visual expression of this. (That they are both repeatedly called diphuês, emphasising the balance of the animal and the human in their composition, is surely significant here.)

12But mixanthropy does more than expressing transition. To uncover the true depth of its value, it is illuminating to compare mixanthropes with other mythical combinations of animal and human. If one does this, mixanthropy appears not so much as a problematic state – liminal, unstable – as a resolution of problems. There are two things which the mixanthrope avoids:

  • Complete fluidity of state

  • Concealed animal elements

13It was argued in Chapter 7 that mixanthropy is a way of both depicting and fixing a being undergoing the complete fluidity of metamorphosis. Metamorphosists who do not have mixanthropic representation are overwhelmingly accorded negative associations. Grief-stricken or assaulted women undergo metamorphosis as part of their status as victims; but other characters are actively malign. Lykaon is the chief human example of this. His metamorphosis is contingent on his savage and transgressive human sacrifice. He is by nature a breaker of codes, both human and divine; his boundary-crossing transformation is the culmination of a life characterised by the disastrous blurring of the human and the animal. His adoption of wolf-form merely makes manifest the wolfishness which has always been inside him.

  • 2 Paus. 8.2.2-3. Ancient narrators did from time to time disturb the dichotomy between Lykaon and Kek (...)
  • 3 Klearchos in Athen. Deipn. 13.555d.
  • 4 Suda s.v. ‘Kekrops’; Fourgous (1993), 234.
  • 5 Parker (1987), 197-8.

14Pausanias explicitly contrasts the benevolent Kekrops and the impious Lykaon,2 and indeed, there is an underlying discrepancy between them in this regard also. Kekrops’ invention of monogamous marriage puts an end to a chaotic scrambling, not of animal and human but of male and female: a primordial situation in which man and women mate promiscuously and in which children are ignorant of the identity of their fathers, and vice versa.3 This rôle finds a rare visual echo in descriptions of Kekrops not as a mixanthrope proper but as a combination of male and female parts:4 once again, the hybrid with its distinct division of components can express a resolution of elements which have been, or which risk being, mingled together in a worrying state of confusion. As with the transgression of Lykaon, this chaos is a condition of the primordial past, which the hybrid helps to usher out. As Parker has observed, the reign of Kekrops in Athens is characterised in such a way that it resembles the Golden Age of Kronos,5 and yet Kekrops’ rôle is not to ensure the continuation of a time of bliss but to facilitate progress and development.

15With such examples of the resolving power of mixanthropy may be compared figures like Dionysos and Demeter Melaina. In these two cases, mixanthropic representation – while it is conceptually important – is iconographically slight. Is it merely coincidental that these two deities, of all the mixanthropes studied, are most strongly associated with destructive deconstruction of boundaries? Demeter when angry forces men to re-enact the wolfish crime of Lykaon and eat their own offspring; she pushes man back into the animal state which it has left behind. Dionysos too causes humans to cross the human/animal line, either by reducing them to madness and savagery, or by actually turning them into animals. He also famously leads Pentheus to move across the male/female divide. So while figures like Cheiron and Kekrops preside over and preserve vital boundaries in human life, most significantly that between mankind and the wild, the animal, Demeter Melaina and Dionysos threaten the security of those boundaries. Protective mixanthropes appear to have far more widespread and canonised mixanthropic depiction; destructive ones are far less secure in their form. Their animal component is often a matter of uncertainty; it is not fixed or stable; and it is not always apparent.

  • 6 Theog. 570-616; W&D 57-105.
  • 7 W&D 67.
  • 8 It is interesting to note that, as has been observed above, one aspect of Pandora’s divinely-create (...)

16This brings me to the question of latent or concealed animal nature. The anxiety attendant on this in Greek thought is exemplified by the characters of Pandora and Helen, described in the previous chapter. In Hesiod’s admittedly extreme treatment,6 Pandora is both the epitome of the feminine and the source of all man’s travails. She also carries a special form of latent animality, which is the basis of her rôle as a dolos, or trick, designed to entrap Prometheus and so mankind. When she is created, various gods lavish on her exterior the graces that characterise feminine allure; Hermes, however, places within her a kuneos noos, the mind of a bitch.7 Pandora displays, and is fatal because of, an extreme and significant form of the inside/outside discrepancy. Her perfect beauty conceals its antithesis: an element not only of the animal, but of an animal proverbially connected with shamelessness and vice.8 Helen reveals a variant on this characterisation with her kuôn/kunôps imagery.

17Pandora and Helen represent a particular female element of the inside/ outside discourse, but it is not limited to femininity; the figure of Lykaon, who is at his most transgressive and despicable when his wolf-nature lies hidden beneath a human exterior, shows that. Mixanthropes, however, resolve the situation by externalising and making manifest the animal/human combination. Their com­posite and contradictory aspect is displayed in plain view, whereas with a figure like Pandora it is part-hidden and therefore more dangerous. Thetis, whose mixanthropic depiction is slight, has some of Pandora’s frightening inner/outer discrepancy, expressed in images of outer whiteness and inner blackness (see Chapter 1).

  • 9 Frontisi-Ducroux (1975), 137-41.

18In Chapter 7 it was remarked that Snodgrass and Davies put forward opposing views of the use of mixanthropic forms to show metamorphosists in art. Snodgrass argues that the mixanthropic form shows change by capturing a being mid-way between two states. Davies counters by claiming that what the mix­anthropic form shows is the divergence between inner (still human) and outer (animal). I would argue that with regard to deities especially, mixanthropy achieves both things. It captures change, and it makes manifest the inside/ outside discrepancy. There is really no conflict between the two. Mixanthropy and disguise sometimes go together. For instance, Pasiphae concealed in her wooden bull, a strange combination of inner and outer identities, produces the Minotaur, in whom the combination is worn on the surface. Both are monstrous, but it is Pasiphae, mistress of deception, who is the active transgressor in the story.9

19Even repeated mixanthropy does not obviate the possibility that the deity’s destructive animal side will be manifested punitively to the detriment of mortals. But this possibility is kept firmly in view by the composite form. Mixanthropy is a visible reminder of possible divine aggression, but its very visibility appears to diffuse some of its fear-inspiring power. It is both a warning and a reassurance. So a mixanthropic deity whose representation achieves a certain stability seems able to protect man from the baneful aspects of the animal elements the dual form contains. By counteracting the fluidity and chaos of metamorphosis and by making manifest the juxtaposition of animal and human, the deity can offer a resolution to the two abiding uncertainties of human identity. The first is, ‘Is human identity secure or will it succumb to retrogressive transformation?’ The second is, ‘Is the humanity of the outside form matched by the nature residing within?’ In the face of these questions, the mixanthropic deity appears to offer some comfort.

20Mixanthropy, then, is less problematic than the alternatives: on the one hand metamorphosis, on the other a deceptive human form. It also has its own positive value. This explains at least in part its endurance, in some cases its abiding popularity, despite all the negative aspects on which this book has dwelt at length. It explains why a mixanthrope can be a god, as well as a monster, because it places them at the heart of human needs and concerns. Monstrous forms are often seen as an expression of the Other, and this is one aspect of them; but the deities here studied are not simply a straightforward antithesis to humanity. They cannot be dismissed as curiosities or whimsies of art. Nor are they the obsolete products of an age before texts. So far from being simply primitive relics, they are a reflection of the ancient sense of human progress away from the primitive. Their persistent relevance in ancient cult makes them worth detailed study, and their great attraction lies in the fact that they are at once highly unusual and, in many regions, essential to the themes and needs of Greek religious life.


1 Though paideia is one of the hallmarks of human civilisation, von Blanckenhagen is surely right to remark (1987, 87) that ‘Cheiron teaches natural wisdom which is close to animal instinct.’ While with him, young heroes receive a portion of some qualities which are absent (lost?) from mankind itself.

2 Paus. 8.2.2-3. Ancient narrators did from time to time disturb the dichotomy between Lykaon and Kekrops, eliding their deeds and their ethics; for a discussion of these trends, see Fourgous (1993).

3 Klearchos in Athen. Deipn. 13.555d.

4 Suda s.v. ‘Kekrops’; Fourgous (1993), 234.

5 Parker (1987), 197-8.

6 Theog. 570-616; W&D 57-105.

7 W&D 67.

8 It is interesting to note that, as has been observed above, one aspect of Pandora’s divinely-created appearance gives, perhaps, a subtle warning of what lies within, at Theog. 582: her crown or chaplet is decorated with all kinds of knôdala, beasts, a word which carries strongly negative associations. On the one hand, animal imagery was a fairly staple element of decoration in Greek material culture; on the other, in Pandora’s case the knôdala motif may reasonably be thought to pick up on an element of her inner nature.

9 Frontisi-Ducroux (1975), 137-41.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 2011

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